IMAGE ABOVE: Heather Hanna, Jason Liebrecht, Lana Lesley, Joey Hood and Hannah Kenah in Stop Hitting Yourself, Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. January 2014. Photo by Erin Baiano.
It’s hard to keep up with Rude Mechs. Austin’s critically acclaimed experimental theater collective is thriving; having wrapped up a New York tour, it’s now gearing up for a myriad of new projects, including a run of The Method Gun at the University of Texas, Sept. 10-14, and a new commission at Yale. Co-producing artistic directors Shawn Sides and Madge Darlington took a break from their non-stop schedule to give Arts + Culture Texas the inside scoop on what’s to come.
In February, the company finished a sold out, six-week run of Stop Hitting Yourself, their high-energy show exploring greed, excess, and altruism at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater. At first, the company didn’t know what to expect when partnering with such a storied institution.
“We went in with a little bit of trepidation,” Sides said. The company was worried that the Lincoln Center team might clash with the ensemble’s usual process. Darlington felt that Lincoln Center Theater’s artistic director, Paige Evans, was taking a risk by working with an ensemble theater from outside New York, but in the end, all parties were happy with the relationship. Rude Mechs got national exposure and found new audiences, while Lincoln Center was able to attract a younger demographic. “Evans was fantastic, they were great, we all fell in love,” Sides said. Darlington added, “It was not a natural fit, but it ended up being a good partnership in the end.”
At the end of May, the company heads to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a short residency with PlayMakers Repertory. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, PlayMakers hosts ensemble theater companies who are in the process of developing new work and provides them with artistic and technical support. (New York’s SITI Company and Philadelphia’s Pig Iron are among recent invited groups.)
During the residency, Rude Mechs plans to finish Now Now Oh Now. Inspired by evolutionary biology, puzzles, and live action role-play games, Now Now Oh Now debuted in Austin in 2012, but still needs to be polished. The show was sparked by a discussion with an ornithologist at Yale, who Sides said, “proposed that survival of the fittest is not just measured by speed or strength or camouflage but also by beauty—that birds will select for beauty.” Taking this idea as a starting point, Now Now Oh Now is about the role that chance and beauty play in evolution. Rude Mechs will take the show to Duke University in October and hope to tour to a few more cities after that.
Summer for the company will also involve the continuation of Grrl Action, an autobiographical writing and performance workshop for teenage girls run by Darlington and company member Jodi Jinks. This year, the workshop will include guest artists and a self-defense component.
Rude Mechs is currently the resident theater company in the department of theatre and dance at the University of Texas, where Kirk Lynn, a co-producing artistic director, teaches and heads the playwriting program, and where company members respond to student work and mentor students. In the fall at UT, Austin audiences will have the chance to see the final version of The Method Gun, which the company showed in workshop several times in Austin and finished at the Humana Festival in 2010. As for the partnership with UT, “It’s kind of formalizing a relationship that we already had in a lot of ways,” Darlington said. “It has been a way for them to share resources with us and vice versa.”
Kirk Lynn, a co-producing artistic director, is now a professor at UT and head of the playwriting program, and company members have been very involved in UT’s New Works Festival, responding to student work and mentoring students.
Looking even further into the future, in 2015, Rude Mechs will create a new work commissioned by Yale University. The plans are vague at this point, but Sides said “It’s going to have to do with exercises in making a better life, so who knows what rabbit hole that’s going to send us down?” In the fall of 2015, they hope to mount their next installment in the Contemporary Classics series (literal re-enactments of iconic experimental theater productions) with a piece by Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Also in 2015, the company will celebrate its 20th anniversary. “It just feels like no time has passed,” Sides said with amazement. Rude Mechs received a Bessie Award nomination for its re-enactment of Dionysus in 69.
Of course, many things have changed for the company since its early days. “I think the way our company functions and thrives is evolving, along with culture,” Sides said. “Culture’s evolving, people are busier, and they are also more scattered. We spend less time together in a room when it’s not actually the rehearsal room.” Darlington added, “It can get a little insane when people want a face to face meeting. When anyone wants to meet one or two of us together, it goes from comic to absurd to tragic, quickly.”
As for whether their process has changed, Sides said, “We never had a set process. Our process is different for every single piece we make. As a company we share an aesthetic and we get in the room and try things and read. When there’s heat around something it becomes obvious to us. Then we lean in to wherever the heat is.”
Despite its growing national audience, Rude Mechs’ relationship with the city that spawned it is as strong as ever. “Our relationship to our audience is vital to the health of our company because we do so many workshop versions of the work,” Sides said. “We rely on an audience to come to those, to understand they’re seeing a workshop, to offer feedback, and to trust that they’re collaborators with us. And we have that here.”